TAMIL NADU

In Maharashtra, most races are too close to call

Mahesh Vijapurkar

MUMBAI

Take Sharad Pawar's well-nursed constituency, Baramati where people vote as an act of devotion to him. Or Kopergaon, where most voters remain loyal to Balasaheb Vikhe-Patil despite his shifting parties. Or Manohar Joshi's Mumbai North Central seat which is easy to predict. Add to this a few won by the Congress and Nationalist Congress Party in triangular fights in 1999 from western Maharashtra like Karad and the list of near certain wins is more or less complete in the State. After that, there is a question mark against the other seats.

Notwithstanding the tie-up between the Congress and the NCP for this poll, which Mr. Pawar promises will also hold good for the coming Assembly polls, possibly in September, most of the other seats are not seen as one-way tickets to assured victories. As yet the Shiv Sena/Bharatiya Janata Party's level of confidence has not been hit, but there is a fear that its 1999 supremacy could be threatened. Political observers concede that the two alliances are locked into close contests now for several reasons in the two phases of polling on April 20 and 26 for the 48 seats from Maharashtra.

It is no one's case at all that the parties — the NCP, the Congress, the Sena and the BJP — will retain the seats they won in 1999. There are bound to be upsets because it is one of the most fiercely fought polls. And the upsets will depend on how the Dalits vote. The Bahujan Samaj Party is making a serious bid to draw attention to itself, if not win seats, by fielding candidates in most seats. This is because it is also trying to play the politics of patronage, and emerge as a new platform for the Dalits, who are traditionally the preserve of the existing Dalit leaders in the various RPI factions.

If it manages to help unseat some of the candidates, even without winning a seat itself, the BSP feels it could make a grand entry into the political scene in Maharashtra. That would upset the applecart of the Dalit establishment, which has been cornering the gains while the masses are left to languish. This is why some of them have moved to the Sena.

The Congress and the NCP have taken a "where else can they go" approach to the Muslim votes, which may shift towards the BJP in a minor way, according to its own assessment. The NCP-Congress, being in Government, filed a large number of POTA cases against members of the community, which blotted the parties' copybook in so far as the minorities are concerned. It is not yet clear which direction the strategic voting by the community would take but the SP's presence adds a dash of mystery to the likely outcome by adding an edge to the contests.

Take, for instance, the Mumbai North East seat. Kirit Somaiya of the BJP was seen as being in trouble against the Congress' Gurudas Kamat — it is a seat that has swung between the two parties in the past — but with the sudden emergence of the Bharatiya Republican Party's Raja Dhale there, the two are likely in a clear contest because in a huge, slum-dominated constituency, the Dalit votes could shift. In Mumbai South Central, the Sena's Mohan Rawle won in 1999 by a whisker — 153 votes — because the SP chewed away some 26 per cent votes, which other contenders could have hoped for.

By and large, the NCP-Congress combine is responsible for not working out a higher index of unity of the non-BJP-Sena parties. The NCP doled out three seats to the RPI factions and one to the Janata Dal (S), but the Congress parted with none from its own quota. In the fray, therefore, are 16 from Prakash Ambedkar's Bharatiya Republican Party, three from the CPI (M) and two of Peasants and Workers' Party. In some they are fighting each other but together they add up to 67 candidates, reducing the index of unity. Sushilkumar Shinde, the Congress' key campaigner admits to "some possible vote erosion because of these parties."

But if there is the most-wooed vote, it is the Marathas. The Marathas, as a community, are not a single bloc any more. The community is looking at how to get close to the political establishment and become a part of the decision making more than anything else in exercising its options. Till the Congress alone ruled the roost, it was loyal; when other opportunities surfaced, its options enlarged. In turn, that lengthened the list of its suitors. That is why most cooperatives in Maharashtra run by the Marathas are now divided along political lines. This, more than the minority votes, may decide the outcome in many seats.

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